By Ethan Diamandas
In September 2018, Vanessa Gilles settled into her seat at TD Place to watch the women’s national soccer team play an international friendly match against Brazil.
“(I remember) saying to myself and my teammates at the time, ‘Crap, I want to be on that field,’” Gilles said in a Zoom call on Tuesday. “I want to wear that jersey; I want to be celebrating with them.’”
Flash forward three years, and Gilles already boasts an impressive soccer resume. The 25-year-old made her official national team debut in 2019 and helped Canada win its first ever gold medal in soccer at the Tokyo Olympics this summer.
But, through it all, Gilles had yet to fulfill her dream of taking the pitch at TD Place.
That finally changed on Saturday, as the Ottawa-native played her very first international game in front of her hometown crowd when the women’s national team kicked off its Celebration Tour with a decisive 5-1 win over New Zealand.
“It’s kind of weird to have my first home game, as in ‘Canada game,’ in Ottawa, in my actual home,” Gilles said before the match. “(I’m) so very excited … definitely lots of emotions and excitement around it.”
The opening ceremonies were rightfully extravagant – players ran out of the tunnel one-by-one, gold medals around their necks, and were greeted by 16,386 screaming fans, firework blasts, and a video tribute recapping the most exciting moments from the Tokyo Games.
After players from both teams stood together at midfield for a moment to acknowledge a “culture of abuse and silence” in women’s soccer, Gilles took her position as Canada’s starting left-centre back and smothered any Kiwi scoring chances in the first half.
The defender intercepted passes and pushed the ball up to forwards and midfielders like Jessie Fleming – whose smooth penalty-kick snipe gave Canada the lead in the 12th minute – and captain Christine Sinclair, who potted a goal of her own just before halftime. Gilles was eventually subbed out in the 47th minute.
Beyond the match itself, the tour – which includes another game in Montreal on Oct. 26 – offered Gilles, her teammates, and their families a chance to appreciate the significance of their Olympic victory.
There were no fans in attendance in Tokyo and, once the Olympics ended, players zipped home to their respective bubbles to quarantine, leaving little time to celebrate together. The reunion in Ottawa allowed everyone to catch up.
“It’s been nice seeing what everyone’s been up to and their homecomings,” said Gilles, who arrived in Ottawa from France, where she plays professionally, six days before the match.
Make no mistake though, Team Canada is here to compete. The blowout of New Zealand showed just how hungry Canada is to follow up its gold medal performance with another win at the 2023 World Cup.
“Every day moving forward is preparation for the World Cup,” Gilles said. “And it’s something that we can’t take for granted, with the national team being [together] once every month or so, and then we go back to our clubs.”
Canada easily outpaced New Zealand, but the final score took a backseat to some more important takeaways from the Canadian women’s performance in Ottawa.
Gilles said these two games offer an opportunity to grow the game of women’s soccer — a movement that’s very important to her.
“We’ve seen, through the [Tokyo] Olympics, the support and the backing that we’ve had,” Gilles said. “In previous Olympics as well, whenever we come home, people are interested in watching these games, and I think that a league could further that as well.”
Gilles said a professional Canadian women’s soccer league — or even a singular Canadian team in the recently revived USL W League, which begins play in May 2022 — could draw more women to soccer and boost the sport’s popularity in Canada.
“Having a player-led league would also be phenomenal,” Gilles said. “I think that comes from players advocating and speaking about it, but also having investors. I think that’s obvious; money runs the world.
“So that’s the first step to getting people interested and committed to building this league, which I think will do tremendously well here in Canada.”
So, as Gilles raced up and down the pitch, leapt for headers and blocked shots, she said she hopes there was a young girl or two in the stands, ready to be inspired, just as Gilles was years ago.
“I think my number one thing that is really important to me,” Gilles said, “is inspiring the youth and having that impact on the players that are sitting in those seats: future Ottawa players, future Montreal players.
“I can’t stress enough the impact that had on my career and my ambitions. And having other people and players in that position is really cool.”
And Gilles said she’s not done making a difference. Not even close.
“The gold medal isn’t the end of the story. Hopefully, it’s just the beginning.”
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